Catholic creatives bring new faith-filled content to families

In the past, an author who wanted to pen a book or a screenwriter with a program idea followed a traditional path that involved acquisition, contracts and lengthy development processes. The advent of emerging content creation technologies has delivered a renaissance in Catholic catechesis. The recent success of “Christmas with the Chosen” breaking attendance records globally points to a core audience that is hungry for values-oriented content.

To meet this demand, an emerging trend in Catholic circles finds both independent creators and existing media companies seeking new ways to involve their target audiences in delivering projects that evangelize in dynamic ways.

“Like St. John Paul II said, ‘Be not afraid,'” said Juan C. Carredano, CEO of CCC of America, whose new project “Lukas Club” will provide brief video episodes in English and Spanish that promote the tenets of the Faith in fun ways for young children. “Children need to keep learning about the joy of the Gospel. We have an excessive amount of content in the digital world, but there is not much content that brings us closer to God. If not now… when?”

Rob Kaczmark, the CEO of Emmy award-winning Spirit Juice Studios, found his own motivation to launch “Juice Box: The Catholic Kids Show” at home. “I have always been inspired by great movies and TV shows, and I’ve wanted to create content for young kids that is engaging and encourages them to connect with God,” Kaczmark said. “I felt that I sometimes lacked the tools to teach the Catholic faith to my own young children, and that a quality kids show could set them down that path in a fun and entertaining way.”

Learning to live the Faith

While they may come at their creative processes in diverse ways, and their projects vary, all Catholic creatives hope to fashion projects that leave an early impression on the youngest members of our Church.

Anthony D’Ambrosio, an author and the founder of Catholic Creatives, based his new book, “Beakle and the Star Stone,” on the parable of the pearl of great price. “I believe that Jesus’ parables are an incredible resource for teaching children about God, because they are so profound, and so memorable,” said D’Ambrosio, who calls his new book “a meditation on what constitutes true treasure, and the journey that we go through to sacrifice the lesser treasures that the world has to offer for those of the kingdom of heaven.” D’Ambrosio believes families who read his book together will share conversations about sacrifice, honesty, forgiveness and the difference between the treasures of this world and the treasures of true intimacy and friendship.

Benjamin Wolaver is a musician and the lead actor in the new streaming video series “The Wonderful World of Benjamin Cello.” “As a family of professional musicians who have toured together for two decades, we noticed that the media our children were consuming was often garish, artificial and anti-Christian,” Wolaver said. “We asked ourselves: Couldn’t we create something winsome and beautiful that would communicate the deep truths of the Faith? Then our mother, Robin, who has a long background in children’s theater, came up with the idea for “Benjamin Cello”: a combination of “Mary Poppins” and “Mr. Rogers” that would showcase the beauty of God’s love and his creation.”

Author Paul Mitchell and illustrator Katie Broussard teamed up to create Corde Press, an independent publishing company whose most recent title is “Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame” ($18.99). “There are three features of the Congregation of Holy Cross charism that we lift up in this book,” Mitchell said. “First, that Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, gives us an example of faithful trust as we encounter sorrow on our journey. Second, that Jesus offers us constantly the invitation to ‘Come, follow me,’ and we will experience an evolution of this as we grow. Third, that the cross can be a source of hope. These are serious themes that will sustain readers, young and old, as they boldly live their faith.”

When writing her book “Saints Around the World” (Emmaus Road Publishing, $22.95), author and speaker Meg Hunter-Kilmer wanted to offer representation to children who don’t typically see themselves in the stories of the saints. “I hope that readers will encounter these saints and begin to believe that they, too, can be saints, that God is working through their brokenness and consecrating their talents and delighting in them exactly as they are,” Hunter-Kilmer said. “Too often, we become convicted that we’re unworthy of the love of God because we don’t fit into the constraints of holiness as it’s presented to us by shallow images of sanctity, but the lives of the saints make it clear that God loves everybody, always, without exception.”

Engaging Catholics away from Church

In its November 2021 study “Faith and Spiritual Life of Catholics in the United States,” the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) pointed to declining Mass attendance among young Catholics. Catholic creatives see their projects as an important part of the mission to reach out to Catholic families who may not actively be practicing their faith in traditional ways.

“I think that ‘Juice Box’ has a unique opportunity to bless families who both attend Mass regularly and those who are not quite as active, because it meets them where they are,” said Rob Kaczmark of Spirit Juice Studios. “‘Juice Box’ is equally as fun as it is catechetical.”

Meg Hunter-Kilmer hadn’t anticipated the way the diversity present in her book might impact those who are away from Church. She finds the book’s inclusivity to be reaching people right where they are. “They’re looking for diverse books for their kids, and they’re willing to give a Catholic book a shot because they look at the cover and see that it’s so much more than the European religious they might have expected. Everyone who reads it — however devout they might be — will find tons of new saint friends in stories that share the hard parts of the saints’ lives.”

Anthony D’Ambrosio believes in the power of communicating the Faith through a good story. “This book is actually written in the same ‘school’ as Chronicles of Narnia or the Hobbit, in that it is not explicitly Catholic first,” he shared, calling “Beakle and the Star Stone” a great gift for friends and family who wouldn’t want to receive explicitly faith-based resources.

Inspiring the next generation of creatives

As creative campaigns proliferate, and projects reach Catholic families, a byproduct is instilling in children the invitation to use their own gifts to share their love for God. Opportunities such as independent publishing and crowdfunding open the door to new generations of storytellers.

“Juice Box” creator Kaczmark encourages others who may desire to tell great stories. “First, consume as much kids’ content as you can. Get to know what’s out there; see the good and the bad. Then see what is lacking or see where your unique talents can best be applied.”

“Families are desperate for things that bring them together over traditional values that are truly entertaining,” D’Ambrosio said. “I don’t think that there is anything more vital for us to create for than the domestic Church.”

“It can be easy to forget, in a Church with so many devotions and traditions and saints, that the goal of every project needs to be drawing people into the heart of Jesus,” Hunter-Kilmer said. “Even when evangelization isn’t our overt purpose, we need to step back with each book or podcast or album or video and ask ourselves if this piece speaks of God’s love, if it points beyond the prayer or story or image to Jesus. We can never hear enough about his love.”

Lisa Hendey writes from California.

A Bounty of Resources

Pope St. John Paul II would likely be delighted by a plethora of creative resources that seem to be directly responding to his call for a New Evangelization that is “new in its ardor, methods and expression.” Catholic parents who are anxious to share the fullness of the Faith with their families will find plenty of great tools to share timeless teachings in engaging ways. Many of these projects stem directly from parents who themselves desired to bring the Word to life in their own homes.

New on the screen


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Juice box“Juice Box — The Catholic Kids Show”
From the Emmy award-winning team at Spirit Juice studios comes an online kids show that entertains while teaching the Catholic faith to children. A “first look” at the show’s pilot episode on prayer is hosted by talented Catholic performers Melinda Simon as “Miss Mel” and Steve Angrisano as “Steve.” Plans for future episodes include the Mass, ABCs of Catholics, and saints. Episode 1 will be launched in early 2022, and viewers will be invited to fund future episodes with good-will donations. Bright imagery, engaging dialogue and fun music are sure to delight the show’s target audience of 3-to-6-year-olds! Learn more at spiritjuicekids.com.

Lucas club“Lukas Club” — CCC of America
“Now more than ever, children need to receive messages of peace and hope, to have a light that compels them to do good in compelling ways.” New from the CCC of America, which has distributed over a million products in 10 languages across 22 countries, “Lukas Club” uses puppetry, animation, music and color to engage children to do good with their friends and families. Currently in crowdfunding, the first season of “Lukas Club” will feature 7-to-10-minute episodes in English and Spanish. Learn more at cccofamerica.com.

Benjamin Cello“The Wonderful World of Benjamin Cello”
Now streaming on FORMED and at Kin.club, two full seasons of this highly watchable family series invite viewers young and old to “the Land of the Baptized Imagination.” Host Benjamin Wolaver, who plays Benjamin Cello, is joined by his musically gifted team of family members as the series focuses on sharing scriptural themes with a creative approach. Learn more at benjamincello.com.

Studio 3:16“Studio 3:16”
Now in development for its second season, “Studio 3:16” is a production of Cross Boss Media. Host Shervin McCullough joins a diverse cast of singers and musicians with dynamically produced content that is fast paced enough to catch and keep the attention of a tween audience while still being “safe” for young families. The show’s creators invite viewers to pay-it-forward through donations to aid in production, pray-it-forward by keeping their mission in prayer, and say-it-forward by spreading the word about the show. Learn more at studio316.com.

New on the Page

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BeakleBeakle and the Star Stone” — written by Anthony D’Ambrosio, illustrated by Conor Hennelly
A playful retelling of the parable of the pearl of great price, this full color book is a hybrid of sorts, combining the delightful illustrations of a picture book with the read aloud potential of a great chapter book. While not overtly “religious,” author Anthony D’Ambrosio’s crowdfunded book underscores important themes for a teachable moment families can share together.

book cover“Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame” — written by Paul Mitchell, illustrated by Katie Broussard
“Sorin Starts a School” not only compellingly shares the story at the heart of the University of Notre Dame’s vast legacy, but it also opens in our own hearts the opportunities that are possible in this life when we step out in faith with love and purpose as Father Sorin, the founder of Notre Dame, did. Enchanting prose by Paul Mitchell and captivating art by Katie Broussard combine to make this a book that is sure to become a family favorite. The creators of this book are happy to share that all the proceeds from this book will go to the Congregation of Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh. Learn more at cordepress.com.

saints around the world“Saints Around the World” — written by Meg Hunter-Kilmer, illustrated by Lindsey Sanders
Meg Hunter-Kilmer, a traveling missionary, has teamed with gifted illustrator Lindsey Sanders to tell the stories of 100 holy men and women who each walked their own path to God. This compendium of vocationally and geographically diverse men, women and children invites us to consider how we, too, are called to live as saints, even amid our own humanity. Many of the saints here will be new to you. A companion full color world map and sticker set adds to the fun! Learn more at stpaulcenter.com.

New on audio formats

Saint Stories Podcast“Saint Stories for Kids” podcast
Host Chantal Baros, creator of Shining Light Dolls, brings youngsters along for an upbeat weekly journey with the saints. Lasting between 5 to 10 minutes, the show features both well-known and unknown saints and invites children to ponder the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us. Along with basic historical facts and patronage information, Baros shares an engaging story featuring the perspective of the saints and linking the saints’ lives with our own faith journeys.

sprouts“Catholic Sprouts: Daily Podcast for Catholic Kids”
Nancy Bandzuch is behind the mic for this brief, daily podcast for Catholic kids that “strives to plant seeds of faith.” At a level that’s enthusiastic but also informative, Bandzuch teaches children and their parents about Catholic feast days, morality, Catholic theology, the saints and the sacraments. A part of the “Catholic Sprouts” app, but also available through your favorite pod catcher, the podcast is one part of the many helpful tools that Catholic Sprouts offers for parents looking to pass the Faith along to their children.

OSV kids

OSV Kids is an exciting new brand from Our Sunday Visitor on a mission to help children learn about, live and love the Catholic faith. Learn more at teachingcatholickids.com.

OSV kidsOSV Kids Magazine
Available by subscription, single copy purchase or parish bulk opportunity, OSV Kids magazine combines highly engaging storytelling, eye-catching art and interactive activities to teach components of the Faith. Downloadable activities and support for parents in teaching their children make this periodical a tool that will truly bring the faith to life in our homes.

Wordless Weaver“The Wordless Weaver” — written by Claudia Cangilla McAdam, illustrated by Caroline Baker Mazure
With a reimagining of the origins of the Shroud of Turin, “The Wordless Weaver” offers a rare perspective to help teach children about Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Shira, unable to speak from birth, shares her love for Jesus but silently weaving and gifting a lovely shroud. With vibrant imagery and a gentle yet profound message of generosity of spirit, this book is a rare gem among children’s literature.

“Teeny Tiny Theology” series (four board books) — written by Michael Heinlein and illustrated by Frank Fraser
Written to help grown-ups share the Faith with their young children, this series of chunky board books just might be the perfect solution for adult catechesis too! Covering christology, sacred Scripture, the Trinity, and salvation history, the four books lovingly convey timeless teachings from a “teeny tiny” perspective.

Coming soon from OSV Kids Books:

super heroes“God’s Superheroes: Amazing Catholic Women” and “God’s Superheroes: Amazing Catholic Men” — written by Mary Bajda and illustrated by Melinda Steffen
These two companion books share the message that the saints were ordinary men and women who used the gifts God gave them in extraordinary ways. Author Mary Bajda focuses on both well-known and lesser-known members of the Communion of Saints, recounting the superpowers that helped them serve as champions for good. Fun illustrations by Melinda Steffen bring the saints’ stories to life with action hero style.

kids stations“OSV Kids Stations of the Cross” — written by Colleen Pressprich and illustrated by Adalee Hude
Although a time-honored devotion, praying the Stations of the Cross with young children can prove challenging. Some of the imagery in traditional renderings can be too frightening for little ones. Author and mother Colleen Pressprich has created a tender resource containing both prayer and discussion prompts that will encourage young families to pray the stations together all year long.

Catholic crowdfunding 101

crowdfundingCreators have been employing the concept for centuries, but the term “crowdfunding” was first publicly used in 2006 to describe the phenomenon whereby a project is funded by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people. While today’s most popular example of faith-based crowdfunding is clearly “The Chosen,” Catholic creatives are now actively using this technique to garner both financial support and early engagement for their books, movies and music. Two types of crowdfunding schemes are most popular. “All or nothing” approaches such as the model used by Kickstarter mean that if a project is not fully funded by a particular deadline, a project will not receive the funds invested by backers. Other creators may choose to employ a digital fundraising platform such as Go Fund Me, which provides any support pledged to creators even if they do not fully attain their announced goal.

Crowdsourcing campaigns typically offer rewards for backers which can be as simple as an early copy of the project created or as complex as personal interactions with creators for concerts, private screenings and inclusion in project credits. “Stretch goals” are often announced by creators who hope to exceed their announced monetary objective by offering enhanced incentives.

Crowdfunding aids creators who may be undertaking untraditional projects to connect with sources of funding when mainstream media outlets are risk averse. “I believe that crowdfunding gives people the chance to ‘vote,’ if you will, if they want a book or a project to exist, and to become partners in bringing that project to life,” said Anthony D’Ambrosio, an author whose children’s book was successfully crowdfunded. “I want my project to feel more personal, like a grassroots movement of parents who truly believe that we can have better, more intimate and captivating story times with our families, and who want to step out and make that happen for themselves and other families through partnering to publish this book and (hopefully) others like it.”

Catholic video content proliferates in streaming venues

In the age of “cord cutting” and “binge watching,” Catholic families can feel comfortable that quality family content is now more broadly available than ever before. Entertainment professionals are rapidly greenlighting projects that will appeal to today’s families who desire quality content on an on-demand basis. Catholic creators are placing content on mainstream streaming venues such as Netflix and YouTube, but also on faith-based services like FORMED or their own proprietary platforms.

streaming content“The Wonderful World of Benjamin Cello” is just one recent example of quality streaming content. “When we first recorded the pilot for ‘Benjamin Cello,’ we approached several major streaming platforms,” said Benjamin Wolaver, a musician and the series’ lead actor. “One replied that they no longer supported programs that featured mentor figures — children had to discover ‘their truth’ on their own. Another asked us if the word ‘God’ might be removed from the show altogether so it could be for ‘everyone.’ So, we decided to found our own media company, KIN, and self-fund Season 1. That took a couple of home sales, the purchase and renovation of a studio space south of Nashville, and six months of filming. We had no idea what to expect when we released Season 1, but we have been overwhelmed by the positive response from families. What they value is not only the aesthetic quality of the show, but its rich and substantive approach to the Faith.”

When viewing streaming content, parents can access the many readily available online reviews for this programming to determine if a program meets your family’s needs and values.

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